Hello and welcome to my stop on The Point of Poetry blog tour. I’m really happy to be sharing an extract from this wonderful book with you.
George Mackay Brown (1921–96)
Poetry is undoubtedly best read aloud. Even an epic like Milton’s Paradise Lost becomes a whole different beast when you listen to it, and there are contemporary poets who argue that to get the full, unadulterated beauty of any poem you need to hear the poet themselves read it. They probably also think Elvis is still alive. Anyone who has heard that astounding early recording of Tennyson intoning ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ like a midnight visitor at Ebenezer Scrooge’s house, or heard Jeffrey Archer read any of his own literary efforts, will have their doubts as well as their scars. Even Hilary Mantel’s admirable eloquence on the page can be a bit harrowing when you listen to the voice God gave her coming out of a radio. Just because you can write something doesn’t mean you can read it. But one of the reasons I’ve chosen ‘The Hawk’, by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, is because he is the exception that proves the rule. It is a gift to be able to read verse well and he had it, as well as an accent that is as wedded to his poetry as he was to his home. He spent almost all of his life in the small port of Stromness on Orkney’s mainland, apart from brief periods studying in Scotland. Few poets’ work is so deeply rooted in the soil of their birth.
I was lucky enough to spend many weeks in Orkney, staying in Stromness in a beautiful old house that had ships’ masts for beams and an ancient stone construction in the garden that was an old whaling inn. Every so often an unusually high tide would seep gently and silently up through the stone walls that pro- tected the house from the sea and flood the kitchen floor with crystal-clear, salty water. The owners kept all their kitchen equip- ment standing on hefty wooden boxes, just out of reach of these occasional inundations. Orkney is a windswept, treeless, remark- ably exhilarating corner of Great Britain.
‘The Hawk’ describes seven encounters in the bird’s life, on seven subsequent days, ending in its unremarkable death, shot by a crofter, Jock, concerned no doubt about his livestock. There are some spectacular birds of prey in that part of the world. The sight of large hen harriers, swooping low along fences and hovering over the heather, is not at all unusual. There are also large and aggressive great skuas, which although not hawks, are perfectly capable of killing a medium-sized mammal like a hare or rabbit and think nothing of driving you away with fierce clouts on your head with their flat feet. On one occasion on the island of Hoy, my springer spaniel picked up a huge, adult hare, still warm and limp, with a large hole in its flank I have no doubt was inflicted by a great skua. In remote fields, I’ve seen these huge birds shot dead, their massive wings stretched out, literally crucified onnbarbed wire fences. I imagine it’s because some crofters think that will deter others birds from attacking lambs or chickens.
Sitting on the small ferryboat returning to Stromness, the ferryman looked at the hare for a long time and eyed my dog suspiciously, who was bursting with pride, before furrowing his weatherbeaten brow and asking, ‘He’s a springer spaniel?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘But he’s really fast.’
‘The Hawk’ is a poignant little poem, capturing the bird’s rich life in one evocative encounter after another. A farmer’s collie protects a lamb, a group of twitchers point dozens of binoculars skywards at it, and it summarily disposes of a chicken, a rabbit and a blackbird before Jock puts an end to it without a second thought. Mackay Brown has that gift of so many great poets, a near-magical grasp of metaphor, so the chicken dies Lost in its own little snowstorm.
It’s a haggard old cliché that poets commune with nature. Wordsworth is imagined striding out, unsuitably dressed, head- first into a gale across some mountainous part of the Lake District, composing lines in his head, while Gerard Manley Hopkins goes into eco-despair over some spindly poplar trees someone cruelly chopped down without telling him. Less than ten minutes walk from where I am sitting and writing, in the corner of a large wheat field, shining in the August sun, is a tall, white alcove, open to the countryside it overlooks, a folly named locally as Cowper’s Alcove, after the poet and translator of Homer, William Cowper. He frequently sat in it and enjoyed the view across the fields to the villages beyond. The natural world is as natural a source of inspiration and subject matter for poets as is love or loss. Thomas Hardy can bring a stark, rocky pathway to life and Seamus Heaney can sweep you back with him to a childhood Irish bog so vividly that you can smell the peat. One of the greatest pleasures in reading poetry is that delightful sen- sation you get when a writer takes you with them somewhere else, somewhere often far more beautiful, vital and, hence, mem- orable than your geographical reality. It’s not a gift peculiar to poets, but they can do it in the blink of an eye and with far fewer words than most.
Perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that raptors seem popular with poets. Anyone who spends time in the countryside can’t but be impressed by the sight of any bird of prey hunting. Tennyson’s snapshot ‘The Eagle’ is as striking and succinct as the brush- work of an oriental calligrapher. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ is simply stunning in its capturing of the complex, distinctive manoeuvres of a kestrel in flight, quite an achieve- ment in a poem about Jesus Christ. Ted Hughes, in contrast, goes for the less exciting image of a ‘Hawk Roosting’, yet ends up turning it into the most frightening symbol of nature’s utter thoughtlessness and amoral beauty. George Mackay Brown’s treatment, is workaday, matter-of-fact, a relaxed acceptance of life as he knew it was lived in Orkney. His hawk is just one character in an everyday Orcadian story.
One of the most consequential aspects of contemporary living is that quite recently mankind turned a historic corner and for the first time in human evolution, most of us now live in cities. If you are one of those fortunate individuals for whom the four seasons isn’t a hotel chain or a vintage rock band, then you will probably find ‘The Hawk’ and the entire genre of natural poetry it belongs to easier to read and more appealing. If the closest you come to the natural world is gazing out of a train window at uncontrolled and unidentifiable vegetable matter interspersed with leftovers from Network Rail as you commute to the office every morning, then you may well struggle. But then that’s one reason why I wrote this book. Wordsworth striding up that hill and Gerard Manley Hopkins blubbing at his pet poplar stumps were doing something we all probably need but most of us fail to do. They were thinking deeply about the physical and intellectual world in which every second of all our lives is spent. And wal- lowing up to their necks in it, swimming around in all that fresh air, low cloud and frolicking fauna, is one of the most powerful ways to link the two, the physical and the intellectual.
I, for one, am grateful to those who do haul their backsides out there in all weathers, amidst all that vigour and vitality, and write about the world we share with those other life forms in verse. I know it’s not something I can do and I also know that there are poets whose reflections on what they see and experience crashing through the heather, or sitting beneath lofty foliage, can enrich my own world view. One of the most persuasive art theorists I have ever read, the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovskii, argued that art existed ‘so that stones may be made stony’. The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses. Everyday life corrodes things, Shklovskii argued. It neuters and greys-out things, renders them dull and uninspiring, whether they are the simplest of material objects, or the most subtle of emotions. All succumb to the same erosion. Poets are nature’s art restorers.
‘The Hawk’ doesn’t apotheosise the bird. George Mackay Brown isn’t Albrecht Dürer painting a young hare so lifelike you sense its timidity. For him the bird is an everyday sight, some- thing to be seen seven days a week, like the sea or the heather outside his home. What strikes me about the poem is the calm acceptance of death. He weaves it into the rhythm and fabric of the verse without fuss or drama. It’s the natural conclusion to a life led killing other things, neither sad nor tragic, just real. But like all great firework displays, something special is saved for the end and he gives us the space and quiet that follows to think about the poem’s only human character, Jock, and the reason or lack of reason that makes him lift that gun so nonchalantly. Without that pensive ending,‘The Hawk’ could so easily become every urban environmentalist’s anthem, a plaintive hymn about man’s inhumanity to fluffy stuff.
On Sunday the hawk fell on Bigging And a chicken screamed
Lost in its own little snowstorm. And on Monday he fell on the moor And the Field Club
Raised a hundred silent prisms. And on Tuesday he fell on the hill And the happy lamb
Never knew why the loud collie straddled him. And on Wednesday he fell on a bush
And the blackbird
Laid by his little flute for the last time. And on Thursday he fell onCleat
And peerie Tom’s rabbit
Swung in a single arc from shore to hill. And on Friday he fell on a ditch
But the rampant rat,
The eye and the tooth, quenched his flame. And on Saturday he fell on Bigging
And Jock lowered his gun
And nailed a small wing over the corn.
Thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part and to Unbound for a copy of the book.
Follow the rest of the tour this week!